By Mladen Lakić, Aleksandra Tolj
For the members of one football team in the northern Bosnian town of Doboj, sport is far more than just a hobby. Most of the players come from the margins of Bosnian society and include former drug addicts, displaced persons, war refugees and asylum-seekers.
Joining the Homeless Team has given them a chance to change their lives.
“When you say you’re a former addict, people don’t trust you and you can’t find work, because people don’t believe you’re clean,” said Dragan Maksimovic, a former drug addict from Banja Luka.
Recovering from addiction was hard enough, he said, but fighting prejudice was much more difficult.
“By choosing football, I hope I’m sending a clear message to society about the kind of person I am now and what my priorities are,” he added.
The football programme is organised by the International Forum of Solidarity (IFS-EMMAUS), part of the international EMMAUS network set up to help homeless people. The group is the Bosnian partner of the Homeless World Cup association, headquartered in Scotland.
The idea of setting up football teams made up of homeless people originated at a conference in South Africa in 2001, and the first Homeless World Cup took place two years later in Austria with 13 teams competing. The stated goal of the annual tournament is to “use the power of football to energise homeless people so that they can change their lives”.
This year’s Homeless World Cup, which will take place in Poznan, Poland in mid-August, will see teams from 64 countries taking part.
In 2011, Bosnia set up its own team and came sixth in its first Homeless World Cup championship.
“Of course success makes us happy, but our ultimate goal is to win not at football, but in our fight for a more humane society,” the team’s coach Elmedin Skrebo said. “We find players through our various projects dealing with these categories, and through contacts with other similar organisations,” Skrebo said.
New players are selected every year so that as many people as possible are able to take part in the project, he said, and IFS-EMMAUS provides accommodation for them at the training centre in Doboj. The players are not paid.
“Even the team that wins the cup doesn’t get any money for that. The rules are very clear in that respect,” Skrebo said.
In April, Doboj hosted a tournament, with homeless teams from Croatia and Slovenia taking part as well.
“Although those two countries are considered more advanced than Bosnia and Herzegovina, we saw that former addicts, Roma and similar population groups there were treated the same way they are treated in Bosnia,” Maksimovic said.
Skrebo added, “We managed to attract a crowd of 600, which is a lot in a community as small as ours. Although we’ve got a long way to go until we eliminate prejudice, and we’re still at the beginning, it’s good to see that people, especially the young, are interested.”
The coach proudly showed off photo albums and newspaper clippings about the team, noting that “the media has increasingly become interested and we’ve managed to enlist their support in promoting our players”.
To qualify for the Homeless World Cup, players must be over 16, but there is no upper age limit.
This year’s substitute player, 18-year-old Adnan Mekic, is the youngest member of the team.
Mekic lives in the Mihatovici refugee camp near Tuzla. For 15 years, Mihatovici, the biggest refugee camp in Bosnia, has sheltered displaced people. Younger generations born when the war started have grown up in this settlement.
In the EMMAUS café in Doboj, Mekic – who has rarely been anywhere outside Tuzla – told IWPR that “playing football on this team is an opportunity for me to socialise, travel, and meet new people – one of the main reasons I am here. It’s a great opportunity for me to come to Doboj and make new friends. That means a lot to me.”
Mekic said he did not find it hard to train twice a day, because he had always loved football and spends most of his spare time playing. Since he is a substitute, it is not guaranteed that he will be going to Poland. But coach Skrebo said that if Mekic missed this year’s world cup, he might get to play in Chile next year.
“Even if I don’t get to go to Poland, these gatherings will stay with me as a beautiful memory,” Mekic said.
The coach joked about how he had noticed more and more girls adding his players as friends on Facebook. The players themselves said nothing, but smiled and checked their mobile phones.
“That’s exactly what this is about,” Skrebo said. “Our society has to realise that even those who don’t have money and live in tough circumstances are still ordinary people, just like everyone else who is better off.”
Skrebo said the hardest thing was securing funding for the project, particularly travel expenses for players participating in the world cup.
“We hope that this year, just like last year, we’ll get support from the mayor of Doboj South and the Federal Ministry for Sport and Culture,” Skrebo said.
Team members are grateful that the national football association has lent them equipment, and especially excited about the support they have had from Edin Dzeko, a member of the Bosnian national squad. A number of players from the national team appeared in a video about the project last year.
Since the players live on next to nothing, one of the goals of the football project is to find work for at least some of them.
One of last year’s players, 26-year old Alen Basic, is among those now in employment.
“I now work in a dairy factory in Doboj. I didn’t have a job before that – I was volunteering at IFS-EMMAUS and did not hold out any hope of finding work,” he said.
Basic lives in a refugee camp in Doboj, consisting of two buildings funded by the Dutch government to house people who have still not managed to return to their pre-war homes.
“It’s hard to be forgotten by everyone when society rejects you because of a mistake you’ve made, illness or something else,” he said.
Basic said last year’s Homeless World Cup in Mexico was a unique experience.
“It was such a great feeling for me. It was almost surreal. One day I was in Doboj and the next I was off to a faraway country,” he said.
He recalls how many people were at first suspicious and scornful of the Homeless Team, but their attitudes later softened.
“Everything changed when the newspapers started writing about us,” he said. “When we returned from the cup, I realised people were taking us more seriously,” he said.
Basic still does volunteer work for the team, and acquaintances and neighbours have asked him how they could join the team.
“They realised we were having fun, they saw our photos from the cup and they wanted to join – even those who initially found it all funny,” he said.
This article was produced as part of Tales of Transition project funded by the Norwegian Embassy in Sarajevo. SCCA/pro.ba is carrying out this project in co-operation with the IWPR and EFM Student Radio.